Print the Legend?

Midway through the second novel in my new series, I realized I needed to do more research. So, I stopped before my character’s zeal to confess his backstory irretrievably misdirected my story and the series and did more research on the Civil War.

My challenge is the character’s story involves a man the North made into and still believes was the great monster of the Civil War, while the South still calls him a hero, and the military still studies his genius. Bedford Forrest was not a West Pointer, he was not the son of Southern aristocracy but of a poor farmer who died leaving him head of the household at fifteen, he was semi-literate, and as a man made his living as a slave trader. The question is, when politics define history, what story does the storyteller tell?

I admire James R. Benn for his myth regarding Eisenhower’s distant nephew that fuels the Billy Boyle series, it is plausible, a bit humorous, and works. But who didn’t like Ike? Or am I that old? Though Ike fiddled around with his MTC driver, he never became the subject of the teeth-gnashing yellow journalism Forrest did after the “massacre” at Fort Pillow. One could argue that if most of the troops protecting Fort Pillow had not been black, the ruthless overrun of the fort would not have made the front page of abolitionist newspapers and the New York Times.

The massacre at Fort Pillow was a gift to the North. It proclaimed a Southern monster days after the 13th Amendment passed the Senate, energized Lincoln’s base in an election year, helped the 13th Amendment through Congress, and reinvigorated the Northern fight as Lincoln let Grant and Sherman loose on the South. Though excoriated, General Forrest put the skeer in the Northern generals and keep them skeered, raiding Union stockpiles, burning bridges, and winning battles against long odds right up to the end.

After the war, every time Forrest’s influence rose, the Northern press dredged up Fort Pillow, proving Reconstructionist-era politicos were as afraid of him as their generals had been during the war. Did his decision to lead the nascent Ku Klux Klan help public perception? Of course not. He lent his skills to the fledgling organization to get a Reconstruction Governor out of the Tennessee State House. When the Governor moved to the US Senate, Forrest resigned his leadership. That Klan disappeared after a few years to be reborn in the 1920s as the terrorist Klan we know.

Even now, the Northern legend that the South’s best general was a murdering, slave-trading monster is accepted fact. How then does my character tell a believable tale of an eleven-year-old boy riding with and cared for by Forrest after the boy’s father dies in battle? Will readers accept my character’s backstory, will they label me an apologist, will they ban the book? In the current climate, anything is possible.

My character stands by his story, though the other characters in Illinois in 1876 will not believe it any more than they would now. But it is an opportunity to air both sides of the argument for and against a brilliant, complicated, profane man who managed hell so well both Patton and Rommel studied him.

So, getting back to the title of this blog, at the end of John Ford’s movie The Man who shot Liberty Valance, when Jimmy Stewart’s character finishes telling the truth about Liberty Valance’s death, the newspaperman taking notes says, “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.” In that story, a tough, irascible man does the right thing to save a man he considers better than him. The act changes the trajectory of both their lives forever. Forrest’s “legend” changed his life and the trajectory of this country, as well, otherwise, historians say, we might have become the Confederate States of America. There is a story there.

Just Checking – Grammar Checkers

I am a famous comma masher. Once I’m in the groove, I tend to put commas where my head stops and let my gerunds run wild like mustangs on the plains, resulting in images like one my mother once blurted out: I saw an eagle driving down the road. I teased her mercilessly for years, not anymore. My challenge is ensuring commas are where they need to be and not where they’re not. So, I use Microsoft Editor and/or Grammarly to keep me on the straight and narrow (or arrow, as a friend believed, an image unto itself).

For fun, I ran two draft paragraphs through Grammarly and Microsoft Editor. One thing is clear; they rely on different stylebooks with commas and semi-colons coming and going between them.

ME vs. GRAMMAR CHECKERS – The apps’ suggestions are in parenthesis after my text; Grammarly (G), Editor(E),both(GE).

“You,” Cora called, “Despite the signs set out earlier, our water is for the boarders (borders GE) here. It is not public. And we have sick in this house (, G) so I cannot attest to the water’s cleanliness.”

One man backed; the others stood their ground. “Can’t be both, (; G) either its good water for your boarders (borders G) or it’s bad,” one of the two said.

And another . . .

A skinny body in faded tweed pants ran up the street (, G) calling her name. Cora waited until Tommy Newsom reached her, flushed from his run, his plain face sweating under a ragged straw hat, dust (, E) and dirt billowing behind him.

“Miss Countryman, please,” he pulled on the sleeve of her dress. “Please, I just come from the undertaker’s, ma’am. Two men brung (brought GE) Mr. Kanady in there, (; G) now he’s layin’ all white like the rest of them (the GE) dead bodies. He don’t (doesn’t GE) belong in (delete in, G) there, not with them. He’d rise if he could. No matter if’n he was dead or not.”

COMMENTS and OBSERVATIONS

My observation is that in its drive to be the go-to grammar app for business, Grammarly has become a swampy bog for storytellers. I miss the early versions of Grammarly when you could check grammar, spelling, or punctuation one at a time. Not anymore, now it gloms onto your file and drills through your text relentlessly totaling up the error count while reconstructing sentences, seeking improvements such as the house’s door instead of the door to the house. There is, in my head, a place for both. But then, it is my head, which may or may not be a safe or sane place.

It used to be easy to add a word to Grammarly’s dictionary. It isn’t now or I just can’t figure it out.. So, Grammarly endlessly corrects perfectly correct words (boarders) and colloquialisms every blooming time they appear. Unlike Microsoft Editor which learns boarders is a word after the first correction, much appreciated since one of my main characters runs a boarding house with boarders.

And, charmingly, Grammarly offers irrelevant word options such as president, chairperson, or head as an alternative for a chair (he sat on the president) to freshen up your text. Or, as it did two paragraphs above, suggests the text read: the house’s door instead of the entrance to the house. Microsoft Editor does no such thing. But is Editor as good as Grammarly at catching what needs caught? Know this — Editor is not as intrusive or overwhelming. Grammarly will happily inform you that you have 2,400 errors in 80,000-words when most are repetitive or irrelevant, as above. My immediate response is the desire to slit my wrists followed by the resolve to drill down through the text — days— to find the nuggets which, in all fairness, are there.

GRAMMARLY or EDITOR

I leave it up to you to decide which is best or whether you even want to bother with either. As for me, I reckon until the next best thing comes along, a quick run through Editor or a slog through Grammarly is better than ending up with an eagle driving down the road.

The Big Dream for Amazon – Amazon Reads

Remember when Amazon first began? The company’s one goal was to be the biggest book store in the world with enough books to fill the coliseum. Well?

It is, but it isn’t.

Have you ever tried to find a book on Amazon by the title alone? I did recently and was provided a whole array of sponsored electrical equipment and beauty products before the book’s cover appeared. Well, actually all the books with similar titles appeared, the book I sought among them.

In my dream world, Amazon goes back to its roots and splits into separate websites, such as: general retail; groceries, and bookstore. So, as a reader, I can sign on to a site called Amazon Reads or Books and wander the shelves, if virtually, without inundation by merchandise sellers and all the other piffle you get when you sign onto your Amazon main page.

Amazon has the chops to do this, and I believe book sales would increase because us poor readers could actually find the book we want, instead of being bombarded with books of no interest and unrelated products from random departments, including bras, electrical generators, and bamboo sheets.

I am talking about a nice, clean site for books, like the wonderful old bookstore in San Francisco, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. You sign-in, a published today feature lets you know the new books in the genre you most often buy, from there you type in the book you seek, and up it pops. Any book advertising runs down the side of the screen, including bestsellers and sponsored book ads. Other books with similar titles appear after the book you seek, not before it.

On this dedicated book site, when you type in the author’s name all of that author’s books appear, uninterrupted by sponsored books, sponsored products (like bread pans), or whatever the heck else Amazon is pushing. This would be great for those who write in more than one genre because someone who reads your cozy mystery might see a cover, read the description, and decide to buy one of your very un-cozy thrillers.

In addition to finding books by author, readers should be able select and search in more defined and specific genres according to their taste, such as cozy romantic suspense, not-so-cozy romantic suspense, and not-even-close-to-cozy romantic suspense.

On a personal level, I don’t mind other related books appearing in my searches, I might find something I like, but they should come after the book I’ve asked for and not include sponsored ads for books from a different genre like vampires, fifty shades of whatever, and the dystopian world of aggrieved youth. Call me cockeyed, but I think a search for a Vietnam thriller should not result in a screen full of sexy vampire books, vampire books should remain among the undead.

And as I wrote last year, without a consistently applied scale, reader reviews should stop —now (both number of stars and quantity of reviews). Books aren’t camping equipment. We used to buy books by word of mouth or by discovery, Amazon’s review system is an antithesis of this, squelching triers. I have read, as I am sure many of you have, books by bestselling authors with a gazillion reviews all swearing the book is the best thing ever when the book was garbage. In fact, I left a one star review for a bigtime author in nearly those words. Truthfully, I was harsher. And likewise, we have all discovered/taken a chance on/read books without reviews that were to die for (and probably didn’t leave a review when we should have). Hopefully, we touted the book and author to all we met, and in our blogs or newsletters.

Amazon favors the big names and big spenders now, just like the publishing houses did before Amazon came into the world hoping to be the biggest book store ever. Sales is their king, but I suggest that book sales would increase for Amazon if they ran a bookstore where readers could find the book they want to buy with ease (not the DVD version, the Amazon Prime version, or the game version) whether hardcover, paperback, e-, online or audio — and without bedsheets or vampires.

Curious and Curiouser

Don’t you love starting a new book? A new series? I do. It is the blank page of it all that is both delightful and daunting. As I considered my next series, I asked myself what stories I wanted to tell, why, what I could bring to it, would it be in the present or be about the past. Where and when would it all take place? Its questions like this that drive me down the rabbit hole of research, disappearing for about two weeks then reappearing with either a plan or holding a handful of rabbit fur and spitting dirt. If spitting dirt, I realize I took the wrong tunnel and head back down again.

This time, I emerged from the hole with an idea for a series about a spunky boarding house owner and a newspaperman in a small village in northwestern Illinois. The series begins in 1876 the year a big city company built a boilermaker plant on the wrong side of the tracks.

I was born in such a town, one that happens to have a wonderful Historical Society with a fine website that includes the police logs from the 1870s, select daily newspapers and the 1876 city directory with business advertisements. Wonderful reference materials filled with future plots. The newspaper was a bi-fold sheet that included local news, crimes, socials, births, deaths, and church services. The real story in between the lines is the friction of growth, of newcomers, of illness, of drought, and the pain of unpredictable accidents. To gain an understanding of the times, I researched mining coal walls, building boilermakers, the effects of the railroad on growth, raising and shipping livestock (specifically hogs), the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the country, and how all these effected the tiny, Christian communes clinging to their beliefs and way of life that littered northwestern Illinois.

As the town migrated from farming to building boilers that changed the world, mining coal, and making wagons, men set adrift by the War and families seeking work arrived looking for a place to call home. Mind you, in the 1870s there was no village water, sewer, or other infrastructure to support the growth, not to mention building codes. The law was a Constable riding a circuit that included the burgeoning town. Expecting the growth to continue forever, the village Trustees had big plans for it.

The town in my books has a lot in common with my hometown but isn’t, which in no way negates the responsibility to accurately portray the times. It is bucolic with big park, a growing restlessness, surging growth, and lots of potential for mayhem. I get to pick my plots, research endlessly, check 1876 appropriate word usage (it seems every other sentence), discover (serendipitously) that the Pinkertons had a famous female detective working out of Chicago, that both the Winchester ’73 rifle and the Frontier Colt revolver used .44-40 cartridges, and that every day of the week had a purpose and if skillful a woman might have all day Thursday off from her chores.  (Yes, that was one sentence.)

Don’t forget the proper clothing, culture, and morays — if I weren’t a writer, I’d be a research librarian — oops, did that in college, though far too briefly. I conclude that mystery writers need a passion to learn, access to the internet, to donate to Wikipedia from time to time out of guilt, and permission from themselves to order weird books such as Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book and The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1876. Add to the above requirements a brain that plots, conspires, considers motive, and psychology and off you go into the land of the curious and curiouser hopefully to emerge 70,000 or so well plotted, entertaining words later.

Bad Boys and Girls

Some of the most fun I have when writing is fleshing out the character of the bad boys and girls who may not be the villain(ess) but who add depth and color to the hero(ine) ‘s troubles. Occasionally, one bad boy or girl will demand more reader time. No matter how carefully plotted a book or series is, they refuse their assigned part, wanting more. I always think of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet when characters pitch a fit, because to my way of thinking, Shakespeare killed Mercutio because Mercutio insisted on vibrantly stealing the show.

A rampant bad boy or girl in a mystery or thriller can be a problem or add unexpected depth to the plot and to the main character. I have had more than one walk-on demand extra story time. Sometimes like Shakespeare, I just whack them, either write them out or whack them, not as in cutting them from the text, but as in off them in the story. Still some refuse to take their curtain call, one example is an Indochine named Pierre Minotier who slunk his way into my Cooper Quartet series. He is a walk-on in Dead Legend, a shadowy figure in Head First, a player in Pay Back, and that’s just the first three books. Trust me, Pierre inhabits Don’t Tell, the newly published final book in the series..

What is it about Pierre?

Pierre was raised on the family plantation, Bonne Chance, southeast of Saigon. His father, a French plantation operator, was both a legitimate businessman and head of one of the five French sanctioned opium cartels. As his father leaves for Dien Bien Phu and his death, he burdens Pierre with the family business(es), entreating his son to ensure his sister Chloe’s safety, not that Pierre’s sister needs much saving. Chloe is a pistol, too. Still, Pierre makes a deal to get Chloe out of Vietnam that brings him to near ruin, requiring him to consider his future, the cartel’s future, and whose side he takes in the Vietnam War.

Pierre is a raptor, and I’m very fond of him. I hadn’t meant it to be that way. At first, I felt betrayed by his refusal to fade away before realizing he had an irresistible sleazy, rotten, wonderfulness about him and welcomed him to each successive book. And in turn he enlivened the books, adding a bit of rot to each, and moral ambiguity to my hero Laury Cooper’s journey. That’s a lot to carry for a bit player that wasn’t supposed to exist.

Is it his sleaze or his power?

Before Pierre appears in Dead Legend, Laury Cooper considers Pierre’s reputation:

The one-hundred-year-old Minotier franchise was operated by Chloe’s brother, Pierre. Laury knew him by reputation. They had never met.

Over drinks in Saigon, Philippe Latondre, the photographer, had ratted that Pierre bought and resold downed pilots for exorbitant amounts of lucre. Latondre boasted, as though Pierre was some how his, that Pierre was adrift, immoral, deadly, corrupt, loaded with funds and impossible to find, moving as he did in the dappled gray of the shadow business.

In Head First, Robin Haas, Laury Cooper’s cousin, finds an envelope folded between the pages of Jolie Minotier’s diary (Chloe’s daughter). Robin shares it with the darling Chief Warrant Officer Dan Cisco, another bit player who refused to stay within the bounds set for him. His footprint grows in each ensuing book, a bit of a ying to Pierre’s yang. If Pierre is a dark knight, Dan is a dumpling.

“The address on the envelope is in San Leandro.”

“She’s sixteen. Her mother and her pack of Rottweilers are in town. They tried to nab her in Berkeley, she came to you. There aren’t a whole lot of people she trusts. For some reason, you appear to be one of them. Pierre Minotier may be another.”

“Not Pierre, Dan. No.” Robin disagreed.

By Pay Back, Pierre demands everyone’s attention:

A small, elegant man in his mid-forties perched on the cot at the back of the chamber. He was blond and dark-eyed with a two- or three-day growth of reddish-blond beard. He was dressed, not unlike Cooper, in white linen slacks, with socks, blue canvas shoes, and a soft, yellow lawn shirt that fit. He crossed to Cooper with his right hand extended, showing the copper bracelet he wore around his wrist.

“Mais, oui.” Pierre directed Cooper away from the others, his silky gate silent in his canvas shoes. Cooper and Minotier were a study; one dark, one light, one tall, one short, yet both moved as though their timing belts were tuned perfectly for combustion.

And, finally, in Don’t Tell. Pierre Minotier and Laury Cooper are joined by mutual daring and admiration:

Pierre rotated the envelope so that the flap faced Laury. “Avant de l’ouvrir, I have had the contents for a month. It was a gift of sorts, more a bribe, je pense. These people, they are not what they wish you to believe, mon cher. They do not play with fairness.”

“And you are overcome by French-ness,” Laury quipped.

Pierre lifted one shoulder, stared into the brightening fog, and said, “Mais oui. I find these things difficult with those I have strong feelings for—good or bad.” A frisson rode up Laury’s back at the softness in Pierre’s voice.

Or the whole package?

I took great care in writing Pierre’s character, and in return he offered shading, nuance, moral ambiguity and more than a few thrills. He has his fierce loyalties. To those he trusts, he is patient, caring, and slyly supportive. Over the arc of the Quartet, Pierre skulks from a shadowy, frightening participant in a horrifying scam to an ally, the kind you can rely on when all of the cards are against you — for a price — a price you may not expect or want to pay. I’m glad he fought for his place in the telling, stayed true to himself and the Coopers, and let me have fun with a character that, like Crabby Appleton of yore, is rotten to the core. Or is he?

The books of the Cooper Quartet, Dead Legend, Head First, Pay Back and Don’t Tell are available in ebook, papeback and hardcover on Amazon. Pierrre starts here: https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Legend-Cooper-Quartet-Church/dp/1735520829.